So how did animation start at Warner Brothers?
“It was all started by a mouse.” Walt Disney
Actually, it all started slightly before that.
Charles Mintz, a cartoon producer, was working with Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks on the Alice Comedies from 1924 to 1927 at Walt Disney Studios. Mintz was unhappy with the production costs to make these shorts. The Alice Comedies were expensive due to the live-action elements in these cartoons.
In 1927, he told the pair to create a new character and to only use animation. That character was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. After Oswald was created, Mintz signed a contract with Universal on March 4, 1927, that would guarantee twenty-six Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. These cartoons were the first animation distributed by Universal Pictures.
In 1928, when the character proved to be more popular than Mintz had anticipated he decided to start his own animation studio and since he had the contract with Universal he took away the character Disney and Iwerks had created.
From 1927 to 1929, Mintz produced Oswald cartoons for Universal. The leaders of Mintz’s animation department were Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, both of whom hated Mintz’s guts with a passion. Harmon and Ising went to the top of Universal’s food chain and told Carl Laemmle that he should ditch Mintz and have them take over fully on Oswald.
Laemmle did in fact get rid of Mintz but he got rid of Harman and Ising too. Laemmle hired Walter Lantz (later of Woody Woodpecker fame) to produce the new series of Oswald shorts on the Universal lot.
As fate would have it, Warner Brothers decided around this same time that they too would like an animation department specifically to go up against Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony and Mickey Mouse cartoons. The main reason for this was that Warner had bought Brunswick Records along with four music publishers for $28 million (equivalent to $429 million in 2020) and wanted to use the cartoons to promote this material for the sales of sheet music and 78 RPM records.
Jack Warner hired Leon Schlesinger to produce cartoons for Warner Brothers. Schlesinger brought on Harman and Ising to run his animation department after seeing the pairs independently-produced cartoon, Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid. This short was never released theatrically. As part of the deal, Harman and Ising kept the rights to the character to avoid getting screwed over as Disney was in the Oswald debacle by Mintz.
Unlike Mickey who was a mouse or Oswald who was a rabbit, Bosko was a stereotypical blackface character. Like Mickey, he had a girlfriend, Honey, and a dog, Bruno. Bosko’s catchphrase was –
“Mmmm! Dat sho’ is fine!”
Eventually, Harman and Ising dropped these stereotypical characterizations.
The next year, saw the first release under the Looney Tunes label; Sinking in the Bathtub featuring Bosko.
Soon after the Merrie Melodies line of cartoons was introduced. The difference between Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was that the latter used hit songs from the Warner Brothers catalog, especially those featured in their movies. Many of the shorts featured Abe Lyman’s orchestra. Lyman was one of the most famous bandleaders of his day.
Harman and Ising introduced a character named Foxy for Merrie Melodies in 1931. Foxy was a total swipe of Mickey Mouse. The other early star of the Merrie Melodies shorts was a dog named Goopy Geer that played the piano.
Comics historian Don Markstein stated about Foxy:
“Never in animation, before or since, has a character looked more like Mickey Mouse. Smooth out the tiny points that supposedly turned his big, round ears into fox ears, shave the bushiness off of his tail, and they were ringers. Do the same to his girlfriend (unnamed at the time), and she looked exactly like Minnie [Mouse]. They also acted like Mickey and Minnie did at the time. Despite this lack of originality, Foxy was the first character to originate at Warner (as opposed to being brought in from outside, like Bosko).”
Both Foxy and Goopy only appeared in three shorts each. Foxy was discontinued when Ising got a call from his old boss, Walt Disney, telling him not to use this character that was a blatant copy of Mickey Mouse. Ising created a pig character named what else but Piggy to replace Foxy. Piggy would appear in only two cartoon shorts.
Unlike Foxy, Piggy and Goopy stopped being used in 1933 when Harman and Ising left Leon Schlesinger for greener pastures at MGM taking their characters with them. Only Bosko would appear at their new home.
With all of his star characters and animators gone, Schlesinger needed replacements before his contract with Warner Brothers became imperiled. He lured in several animators from Disney including Earl Duvall and Tom Palmer. Schlesinger told the animators to create a star character for the studio and Buddy was born. His first animated short was Buddy’s Day Out released on September 9, 1933.
Buddy was basically a white version of Bosko. He had a flapper girlfriend, Cookie, and a baby brother, Elmer. Between 1933 and 1935 he appeared in 23 animated shorts.
In 1934, Freleng had taken over the Merrie Melodies series and King was in charge of Looney Tunes. They were directed by Schlesinger to develop new characters for both series and they first appeared in I Haven’t Got A Hat released in 1935. Buddy, deemed a flop, was pushed aside for new characters. They included Beans the Cat, Oliver Owl, and Porky Pig.
During this period the Merrie Melody cartoons were in color and Looney Tunes were in black and white.
The members of this cast were moved from Merrie Melodies to Looney Tunes at this point. Beans was supposed to be the star of the show but it was Porky Pig that audiences gravitated to. This became apparent in the second cartoon to feature both characters, which also happened to be the first directed by Tex Avery, Gold Diggers of ’49. By 1936 Porky was the only one of these characters still in use.
The following year brought another popular character to the pantheon of Warner Brothers animation; Daffy Duck. His first appearance was in Porky’s Duck Hunt where he was the foil for the titular character.
Both characters were voiced by Mel Blanc in this short; a tradition that would continue for 52 years.
Blanc reminisced years later on how he came up with Daffy’s voice:
“It seemed to me that such an extended mandible would hinder his speech, particularly on words containing an s sound. Thus ‘despicable’ became ‘desth-picable.'”
Daffy Duck was instantaneously popular with audiences. They responded to his unrestrained and zany actions. Beans the Cat was officially toast from that moment forward.
Bob Clampett, Daffy’s co-creator (with Tex Avery) recalled:
“At that time, audiences weren’t accustomed to seeing a cartoon character do these things. And so, when it hit the theaters it was an explosion. People would leave the theaters talking about this daffy duck.”
Porky and Daffy would appear together and separately in 153 and 130 shorts for Warner Brothers, the second and third most of any Looney Tunes affiliated characters.
1937 also saw the first appearance of Elmer Fudd, who was named Egghead in his early appearances. In 1938 a prototype character for Bugs Bunny named Happy Rabbit appeared in Porky’s Hare Hunt. Bugs’ first official appearance would occur in 1940’s A Wild Hare. Both Elmer and Bugs were resigned by Bob Givens for this short.
“Bugs was not the creation of any one man; however, he rather represented the creative talents of perhaps five or six directors and many cartoon writers. In those days, the stories were often the work of a group who suggested various gags, bounced them around and finalized them in a joint story conference.” – Wingate Chase craig (artist)
Bugs Bunny would gain in popularity over the next several years and would appear in 167 cartoons for Warne Brothers. With his creation, a new age was ushered into Warner Brothers animation that would have a lasting impact during the next several decades.